Of the various combinations of the piano with strings, the piano quintet has the greatest sonority and orchestra-like qualities - although, as this is chamber music, all players perform as soloists. The piano quintet was quite popular in the 19th and 20th centuries and many great works have been written for this form of chamber music. I am a great fan of chamber music and especially of the piano quintet.
Although Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven already wrote important piano trios in the 18th century, the piano quintet was a bit slower in coming into being. That being said, already in the time of Mozart it was quite common to play piano concertos as home music in the form of a piano quintet (piano plus string quartet), and that custom continued well into the 19th century - also Chopin's piano concertos, for example, were additionally published in adaptations for piano quintet. After all, the only way to hear music in the age before there were recordings, was to play it yourself, if necessary adapted as home music.
The first original piano quintets (for piano and string quartet) were written by Boccherini at the very end of the 18th century and he must in my opinion stand as the genre's "inventor" (although mistakenly not generally recognized as such). He wrote 12 original piano quintets (two sets of six) in 1797 and 1799, where the piano and strings compete in an equal contest. Although Boccherini lived in far-away Madrid, as his quintets were published in Paris, they certainly didn't go unnoticed. It is true that he had several precursors, such as Giordani who in 1771 and 1772 published two sets of six piano quintets in London, or Vanhal who in 1784 published three piano quintets, but these works all have an "archaic" character, as the strings are mainly used to fill in the harmony as in the in the 18th century so popular "accompanied sonata" - the voices are not yet independent. That Boccherini wrote the first real the piano quintets is not so strange, for he was a great experimenter who tried out many innovative instrumentations in his countless chamber works. And as a cello player he had a natural tendency to give more independence to the lower strings.
A further piano quintet on a rather large scale for this same instrumentation was written in 1803 by Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia and a promising pupil of Beethoven and very original composer in his own right (unfortunately, the prince was killed in 1806 at a young age in the Napoleonic wars).
Parallel to these developments, a different type of piano quintet also came into being in 1799 when the Czech composer Dussek wrote the first piano quintet in the so-called "Trout instrumentation," i.e. violin, alto, cello and double bass, named after Schubert's famous piano quintet for this combination (Dussek's quintet was published in 1803). This instrumentation remained popular in the 19th c. and we have for example quintets by Hummel (1802), Ries (1817), Schubert (1819), Limmer (1830-1835), Farrenc (two quintets from 1840), Onslow (1846) and Goetz (1874) for this combination.
Schumann's piano quintet of 1842 is generally seen as a breakthrough, not only because it was a very influential work, but also because he again paired the piano with a string quartet as Boccherini and Louis Ferdinand had done (and of course others - there is, for example, a piano quintet for piano and string quartet dating from 1826 by the in Paris active Anton Reicha). Schumann's quintet had so much success (it is arguably one of the best works he ever wrote) that he has even been credited with the creation of the genre. As we have seen above, that was not true, but the artistry and high seriousness of the Schumann quintet were a quantum leap forward for the whole genre. Schumann's quintet was followed by Berwald (1853), Gouvy (1861), Brahms (1864), Franck (1879), Dvorak (1887) and many others, and the "Trout instrumentation" gradually died out. As we will see, the piano quintet remained very popular in the first three decades of the twentieth century, especially among French composers (for much of the 19th c., France used to an opera country where symphonic and chamber music was not popular, but this changed in the 1870s, when a new generation of composers started composing focusedly in these very genres).
Here is my list of best piano quintets - this time I have also included works by famous composers, for after all we are talking about the rare genre of chamber music, so even such major works are not really "world famous" and deserve some boost.
1. Luigi Boccherini, Piano Quintet No 3 in E Minor G. 415 Op. 57 (1799)
The Italian composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) had in 1761 settled in Madrid where he served at the court of the Infante Don Luis. After the death of his sponsor in 1785, Boccherini - whose fame was already of an international nature - was named court composer in absentio by Friedrich Willem II, the King of Prussia, but this patron died in 1797. This led to a flurry of compositions as Boccherini had to supplement his income. In that year, Boccherini wrote his first set of piano quintets which were published by Pleyel in Paris as Op. 56. The fervid experimenter Boccherini had created a new genre! In 1799, he wrote another set of piano quintets, Op. 57, which he dedicated to the "French nation and Republic" and sent to the French Ambassador in Madrid. These quintets are more elaborate than Op. 56 and also incorporate thematic references to France. The Quintet in E Minor is in five parts. It starts with an Andante lento assai which is full of dynamic leaps and features a second theme in the manner of a funeral march. This is followed by a graceful Minuetto (without trio) and with no break follows the Provensal, an dance-like Allegro vivo that contains the most explicit reference to France. It is structured in the form of a Rondo with variations. The next Andante forms a sort of agitated recitative, and this leads to the fifth part of the quintet, which is a new reprisal of the Provensal and thus concludes the quintet. A very inventive and characteristic work, fully worthy of being one of the first piano quintets ever written.
Recording listened to: Zagreb String Quartet with Riccardo Caramella, piano, on Nuovo Era (with Piano Quintets Op. 57 Nos. 1 & 2).
2. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Piano Quintet in E Flat Minor, Op 87 ("Trout Instrumentation," 1802)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was a child prodigy and pupil and housemate of Mozart. From 1788 Hummel spent four years concertizing throughout Germany, Holland and England. After returning to Vienna in 1792, he studied composition with Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Haydn. Hummel became Haydn's successor in Eisenstadt and later served as music director at the courts of Stuttgart and Weimar. Hummel apparently wrote the present Piano Quintet already in 1802, but only had it published in 1822, three years after Schubert's Trout Quintet. The main theme of the opening movement has a martial character. The movement is in very free sonata form, the second theme does not appear until after a mock "development." The Minuetto is a mixture of animation with melancholy. In contrast, the Finale is full of lighthearted merriment and leads to a brilliant close. A masterpiece that deserves to be better known, like all Hummel's music. Hummel was an important and direct link between Mozart and the Romantic period.
Recording listened to: Sestetto Classico on MDG (with Grand Sextuor by Bettini).
3. Ferdinand Ries, Piano Quintet in B Minor, Op. 74 ("Trout Instrumentation," 1817)
Ferdinand Ries (1784-1837) was Beethoven's most gifted pupil, and a fine composer and virtuoso pianist in his own right - again a composer who is today unjustly forgotten. Ries showed musical promise from an early age, before concertizing throughout Europe for a number of years. After that, he settled down in London and in his later years retired to Frankfurt. He wrote symphonies, piano concertos, but also a vast corpus of instrumental and chamber music. The present Quintet was written in London and performed with Ries at the piano. After a slow lamento introduction, containing some Hungarian elements, follows an exciting Allegro con brio in which one bravura passage for the piano follows the other, leaving little space for the strings. Here we have the admired piano virtuoso Ries in full force. The song-like Larghetto opens with a beautiful cello solo. The brilliant and dramatic Rondo finale follows without a pause - it is the most exciting part of the Quintet and again contains a brilliant piano part, although there is also a calm interlude that evokes a sort of medieval atmosphere.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt on CPO (with Grand Sextuor and Sextet by Ries)
4. Franz Schubert, Piano Quintet "The Trout" ("Trout Instrumentation," 1819)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote his famous Trout Quintet for domestic music-making in the household of one of his sponsors, a rich amateur cellist called Sylvester Paumgartner, but the work was only published in 1829, after Schubert's early death. Paumgartner's house was located in Steyr, in lovely rural surroundings, and that may have contributed to the relaxed and warm atmosphere of the quintet. The work has the character of a serenade, also through the use of the double bass, which as we saw may go back to Dussek's quintet from 1799, Hummel's from 1802 (although that last one was only published in 1822) or Ries' from only two years previous. The expansive first movement makes play with the natural contrast between the percussive features of the piano and the polished qualities of the strings. The second theme has much spaciousness. This is followed by an ornamented Andante and an agile Scherzo. Next comes a set of variations on the theme of a song, "The Trout" by Schubert, that was very popular with the Paumgartners. The genteel variations are around the melody rather than on it, as it is played over and over without concealment. The bubbling accompaniment to the original Trout song returns in full force at the end of the set of variations. The quintet concludes with an Allegro giusto, full of good humor.
Recording listened to: Members of the Hagen Quartet with Andreas Schiff, piano, and Alois Posch, double bass, on Decca.
5. Louise Farrenc, Piano Quintet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 30 ("Trout Instrumentation," 1840)
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was a virtuoso pianist and composer who had received lessons from Moscheles, Hummel and Reicha. In 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory, a position she held for thirty years. She composed in the first place for the piano, but also wrote chamber music and three symphonies. Her husband Aristide Farrenc established one of France's leading music publishing houses, the Éditions Farrenc, and also published her music. Louise Farrenc wrote two Piano Quintets, both the work of an accomplished‚ highly inventive composer. Both works have four movements following the classical forms and key schemes, but they are also characterized by a colorful harmony with a romantic sweep. The piano is the leader of the ensemble‚ sometimes even in a virtuoso way, for example in the opening Allegro of the First Quintet. The slow movement of that quintet has a dreamlike, Schumannesque opening theme in the high register of the cello. The following Scherzo is high-spirited and memorable. The finale concludes with a buoyant theme.
Recording listened to: Linos Ensemble on CPO (with Piano Quintet No 2).
6. Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) began his career chiefly as a composer for the piano, and it was only in the 1840s that he tried his hand at orchestral music (including a piano concerto) and chamber music. In fact, prior to 1842, Schumann had published no chamber music at all, but in this year alone he would compose three string quartets, a piano quintet, a piano quartet, and the Phantasiestücke for piano trio. In writing his Piano Quintet Schumann may have been inspired by Schubert's second Piano Trio in E Flat major, as there some structural resemblances. The reason he opted for a string quartet next to the piano instead of continuing to write a piano quintet with double bass as had become customary in the early 19th century, was probably due to the cultural prestige the string quartet had achieved by this time as the most prestigious chamber ensemble, as well as the increased dynamic range of the piano which made a double bass unnecessary. The work was dedicated to his wife Clara, a renowned pianist, but she was ill during the first performance and Mendelssohn had to step in and sight-read the difficult piano part. The opening Allegro brilliante is characterized by two contrasting themes, an energetic, upward leaping theme, and a meltingly romantic second theme. The second movement is a funeral march, like in Schubert's trio mentioned above, but also reminiscent of the funeral march in Beethoven's Third Symphony (both are in C Minor). The theme is used in Bergman's film Fanny and Alexander. The third movement is a lively Scherzo with two trios and the final Allegro ma non troppo ends by combining its main theme with that of the first movement in a double fugue.
Recording listened to: Artis Quartett with Stefan Vladar, piano, on Sony Classics (with the Piano Quintet by Brahms).
7. Louis Théodore Gouvy, Piano Quintet Op 24 (1861)
Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898) was born in the border region between Germany and France and shared both cultures. Educated at the conservatoire in Paris, he spent most of his working life in Germany as there was little interest in symphonic music and chamber music in "opera-crazy" France. But Gouvy's music is characterized by French spirit and suavity, rather than German heaviness. The Piano Quintet starts with a joyous and dynamic Allegro giocoso. It is characterized by a continuous eight-note pattern that keeps moving things along at fast speed. The first theme is utterly charming and the second theme in the cello is sweet and warm. The slow movement is a Larghetto mosso, a sort of berceuse with an intriguing dream atmosphere. The third and last movement provides a brilliant conclusion in the form of a Rondo with a stirring refrain. This is a quintet chock-full of lovely and captivating melodies.
Recording listened to: The Denis Clavier Quartet with Dimitris Saroglou, piano, on K617 (with art songs and string quartet).
8. Johannes Brahms, Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34 (1864)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) advanced the compositional ethic of the great Classical composers into the late-Romantic era and was one of the most influential German / Austrian composers, until will into the twentieth century. Brahms was enthusiastically promoted by Schumann and he remained a life-long friend of Schumann's wife Clara after that composer's death. Clara Schumann also played a role in the long and difficult gestation of the present piano quintet. Brahms had originally written it as a string quintet in 1862, but the famous violinist Joseph Joachim judged it too difficult and lacking in tonal appeal. Brahms then reworked it into a Sonata for Two Pianos and sent it to Clara, who answered that it was too full of orchestral richness to play as a sonata. That finally inspired Brahms to combine the piano and strings into the present piano quintet. The outer movements are more adventurous than usual in terms of harmony. The first movement starts with a strong unisono by all instruments, a sort of dramatic, theatrical phrase. The tempestuous and tragic movement is in tightly packed sonata form. The second movement is a tender Andante, the third one of Brahms' most electrifying Scherzos. The groping introduction to the finale, with its rising figure in semitones, is remarkable in its modernity. The body of the movement, in fast tempo, is a hybrid of rondo and sonata forms with a Gypsy flavor, but without losing the basically tragic tenor of this great quintet.
Recording listened to: Artis Quartett with Stefan Vladar, piano, on Sony Classics (with the Piano Quintet by Schumann).
9. Giovanni Sgambati, Piano Quintet No. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 5 (1867)
Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) was born in Rome, to an Italian father and an English mother, and worked as conductor, pianist and composer in that city. One of the rare symphonists in Italy that was even more "opera-crazy" than France, he was supported by Liszt, whose works he frequently performed. Sgambati's most famous composition is probably his Requiem, but he also wrote instrumental music, symphonies, a piano concerto and chamber music. He wrote his Second Piano Quintet shortly after he completed his successful first. The opening movement is launched by a viola phrase against an tonally advanced accompaniment, which was a few decades ahead of its time. The movement with its flexible sonata form encompasses many moods, even that of a cafe-serenade. The second movement is a Barcarolle on a truly haunting theme. The finale, Allegro vivace, is a full of excitement and good spirits. This is an original quintet brimming over with lovely melodies and unusual rhythmic effects.
Recording listened to: Ex Novo Quartet with Francesco Caramiello, piano, on ASV (with string quartet Op. 17).
10. Franz Lachner, Piano Quintet No 2 in A Minor Op 145 (1869)
Franz Lachner (1803-1890) was born into a musical family (also his brother Ignaz was a well-known composer) and trained in Munich. He served as Kapellmeister in Mannheim and Munich. Franz Lachner was a prolific and famous composer, influenced by Beethoven and especially Schubert whose close friend he was in his youth, but also one who has fallen inexplicably out of the repertoire (or perhaps not so inexplicable: Wagner consciously worked to damage the reputation of the conservative Lachner, as he wanted the sponsorship of the Bavarian King for his own music). His Second Piano Quintet became instantly popular after its publication in 1871. Despite the date in the late Romantic period, the music reminds us that Lachner was a child of the late Classical and early Romantic era. The first movement is an unusual "sonata rondo." The main theme with is double content of latent power and lyricism is first presented on the piano before the strings join in. This lovely music is dark rather than tragic. In the ensuing Adagio non troppo the strings state the beautiful first subject. This movement has an almost Italian feeling. In contrast, the Minuetto has a more Bavarian flavor. The middle section includes an enchanting song for the cello. The finale is a genuine Rondo. The first theme scintillates in the virtuoso piano like a wild race, while the second theme is brought forth cantabile in perfect string quartet fashion. The quintet closes with a whirlwind coda.
Recording listened to: Orchester-Akademie des Berliner Philharmonisches Orchesters on Thorofon (with Nonet by Lachner).
11. César Franck, Piano Quintet in F minor (1879)
César Franck (1822-1890) was born in Liège, Belgium, but he studied and worked all his life in Paris. He was influenced by Bach and Beethoven, but also by Liszt. Besides his orchestral works and organ pieces, Franck was also an important composer of chamber music. His Piano Quintet is generally considered as one of his chief achievements, although it also has been criticized for its "torrid emotional power." The music has a cyclical character whereby a motto theme of two four-bar phrases, used 18 times in the first movement, recurs at strategic points later in the quintet. The first movement opens with a drammatico introduction and the ensuing music could not be more passionate and rich in dynamic contrast. It was rumored that the passion of the quintet (which in contrast to other works by Franck has nothing religious about it) was inspired by Franck's love affair with his pupil Augusta Holmès. The second movement, Lento, offers some respite and consolation. The finale, Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco, is again filled with raw passionate intensity. The cyclic theme also returns, giving unity to the whole composition. The darkness of expression of this melancholy quintet has certain elements in common with the brooding, unsettled post-Romantic music of Schoenberg and Scriabin. It was too much for some of Franck's contemporaries: Saint-Saëns, to whom it was dedicated and who played the piano at the first performance, demonstratively left the score on the piano after the concert and seems to have discouraged its further performances. Today it is considered as one of the best piano quintets ever written.
Recording listened to: Ensemble César Franck on Koch Schwann.
12. Antonín Dvořák, Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887).
The Czech nationalistic composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was active in all genres, from the symphony to opera and large-scale choral works, but he also wrote more than 30 chamber music works. His Second Piano Quintet belongs to the top of the canon and is a good fusion of Czech elements with an international musical language. It is a sunny quintet and the first movement possesses a particularly exuberant mood. The Romantic content with its impetuous interchanges of major and minor, emotion-laden harmonic modulations, organically related themes and protracted melodic lyricism is firmly lodged in the framework of a Classical sonata form. The Andante con moto is a Dumka in Slavic folk style, switching between melancholy and exuberance. Each time the Dumka melody returns its texture is further enriched. This movement adheres to the Classical Rondo form. The dazzling Scherzo has been modeled on a Bohemian Furiant with vital and springing rhythms. The Finale: Allegro keeps an unchanging pace throughout, despite the torrents of counterpoint, even fugue. It is in sonata-rondo form and comes to a close with a burst of brilliant energy.
Recording listened to: Emerson String Quartet with Menahem Pressler, piano, on Deutsche Gramophon (with Piano Quartet by Dvorak).
13. Ludwig Thuille, Piano Quintet No 2 in E Flat Major Op 20 (1901)
Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907) studied with Rheinberger in Munich where he himself became a teacher, of - among others - Ernest Bloch, Paul von Klenau and Walter Braunfels. He was a lifelong friend of Richard Strauss. Although he also composed symphonic works and opera, he concentrated on chamber music. The Piano Quintet No 2 has been called his greatest chamber achievement - its counterpoint and harmonic complexity are particularly skillful. The first sonata-form movement has a true symphonic sweep. This is followed by a passionate Adagio with desperate climaxes. The third movement is a sort of Ländler, but a rather aggressive one, to which the celestial trio forms a great contrast. The breathless Finale opens with a piano cadenza and culminates in the chorale-like melody from the second movement. A work of formal mastery and full of dramatic contrasts, that deserves to be heard more often.
Recording listened to: Gigli Quartet with Gianluca Luisi, piano, on Naxos (with Sextet).
14. Théodore Dubois, Quintet in F Major for violin, oboe, viola cello and piano (1905)
Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Ambroise Thomas. Dubois was an important organist and also director of the Conservatoire. He composed mainly religious music, but also symphonies, concerts and chamber music. He also wrote important theoretical works on harmony and counterpoint. Although somewhat academic, his melodious and inventive music is unjustly forgotten, as will be clear from the present Quintet. With the addition of an oboe, the work has a rather unusual instrumentation, although the oboe can also be replaced by a second violin to have the traditional piano quintet ensemble. However, the work's interest lies very particularly in the way Dubois combines the timbre of the oboe with the string instruments. He favors the lower register of the oboe and has it project its tone over the ensemble in thematic passages. The first movement is joyful and optimistic. It is followed by an elegant Canzonetta. In the Adagio an expressive and emotional theme is contrasted with more objective material. The work concludes with a sparkling Allegro con fuoco. In accord with the cyclical tradition of the time, the principal themes of the previous movements return at the end of the work.
Recording listened to: Trio Hochelaga with Jean-Luc Plourde, alto, and Philippe Magnan, oboe, on ATMA Classique (with Piano Quartet by Dubois).
15. Gabriel Fauré, Piano Quintet No 1 in D Minor Op 89 (1906)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is the French master of chamber music, but also vocal music (a famous Requiem) and orchestral pieces, a pupil of Camille Saint-Saëns and later director of the Paris Conservatoire. Fauré wrote in a musical idiom all his own that was always fresh. The First Piano Quintet had a long gestation period, almost 20 years. The first movement is characterized by an austere and enigmatic mood: the opening theme is heard beneath a spray of piano arpeggios. This movement is an example of Fauré at his best, the parts intricately and seemingly effortlessly woven together into characteristic textures. It also has a song-like character. The Adagio has a basic binary structure and starts with the first violin floating above a descending cello line and the lyrical piano part. The finale features a strange archaic dance that keeps haunting the imagination long after the music has subsided. Fauré's music is unmistakably French with a strong kinship to both the urbane Romanticism of Franck and the cool sensuality of Debussy. He responded to the quasi-orchestral opportunities offered by the piano quintet with a wealth of inventiveness and melodic and harmonic inspiration. In 1921 Fauré published a second Piano Quintet that became even more famous than the present one.
Recording listened to: Domus with Anthony Marwood, violin, on Hyperion (with Piano Quintet No 2 by Fauré).
16. Adolphe Biarent, Piano Quintet in B minor (1913-14)
Adolphe Biarent (1871-1916) was born in Charleroi in Belgium and studied at the conservatories of Brussels and Ghent before becoming a music teacher in his hometown. As he died young and didn't work in one of the main European musical centers, he remained almost totally unknown, but has written some interesting music that was inspired by César Franck, especially the 1879 Quintet and Violin Sonata. The Piano Quintet is an dense and restless work, full of unsettledness and unease due to the constant tonal modulation. The first movement seems to have absorbed the usual second, slow movement. It is music that moves through various adventurous sections before arriving at a radiant B major. The tormented, central Intemezzo starts with an ominous piano figure. The powerful Finale is again an instrumental strife of light against dark. An intense and absorbing work.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Danel with Diane Andersen, piano, on Cypres (with cello Sonata).
17. Louis Vierne, Piano Quintet in C Minor Op. 42 (1918)
Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was a French organist (student of Widor) and composer, who had a rather tragic life. From his birth, he was almost blind and he used Braille to compose. In WWI, he lost a brother and a son on the battle field. He died at the console of the organ of the Notre-Dame, when during an organ concert he suffered a stroke. Vierne mainly wrote organ music, but also chamber works and a symphony. The Piano Quintet was written as a musical votive offering in memory of the death in battle of his son Jacques. It is powerful music of vast proportions, but also with much tenderness. Vierne seems to have poured all his despair and anguish into the work. The first movement is opened by a short introduction played essentially on the piano, after which two very intense main themes grow in sublime sentiment, until ending in serenity. In the ensuing Larghetto the viola plays a sorrowful melody and tension lurks beneath the apparent calm. The finale alternates fugal sections with scherzo-like blasts of anger. It is a violent movement inspired by a sort of somber heroism, ending on powerful C Minor chords. A tragic, but dignified work.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Atheneum Tacchino with Gabriel Tacchino, piano, on Disques Pierre Verany (with String Quartet by Vierne).
18. Edward Elgar, Piano Quintet in A Minor Op 84 (1919)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is today one of the best known English composers. He was a violinist and organist; as composer he was self-taught. In Victorian and Edwardian England, he was an outsider both socially (as a Roman Catholic from a poor family) and musically (his musical influences were from continental Europe). Elgar is known for his large-scale oratorios and orchestral music, but he also left a fine body of more intimate chamber music. The Piano Quintet was written in 1918, when Elgar spent a peaceful summer in a cottage in Sussex. The first movement has been called "ghostly music," starting in a magical way by confronting a slow piano theme reflecting the plainsong "Salve Regina" with insistent stabbing strings. The second subject is a Spanish-sounding, languorous dance. The slow movement banishes all specters and spins on in an expansive and reassured way, a center of romantic stillness. But in the finale, which starts vigorously enough, the specters gradually return, undermining confidence, until blown away by the recapitulation of the handsome first theme. The quintet has been linked to a legend about some sinister, twisted trees standing near the cottage where Elgar stayed during composition: these were associated with a legend about Spanish monks struck by lightning while performing a blasphemous dance. An ambitious and expansive work.
Recording listened to: Coull String Quartet with Allan Schiller, piano, on ASV (with Piano Quintet in D Minor by Bridge).
19. Reynaldo Hahn, Piano Quintet in F Sharp Minor (1921)
Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was born in Venezuela from a German-Jewish father and a Venezuelan mother of Spanish-Basque origin. Hahn’s family moved to Paris when he was three and he studied at the Conservatory under Massenet. The flamboyant Hahn drew his friends from a wide cultural circle and was, for example, a life-long friend (and one-time lover) of the famous writer Marcel Proust. Hahn was especially famous for his art songs on texts by Hugo and Verlaine. He also left an interesting body of chamber music, of which the piano quintet (although today forgotten) was the most popular item during his lifetime. It starts with a big-boned and dramatic movement, Molto agitato e con fuoco, brilliant and impressive music that deserves to be better known. This is followed by a pensive Andante, with the sun only briefly shining through the clouds. The final Allegretto grazioso is elegant and genteel, almost like a piece of Rococo music. In this quintet we are miles away from the Groupe des Six - instead, the work seems a continuation of the Belle Epoque, nourished by Classicism, but also full of elusive regret.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Parisii with Alexandre Tharaud, piano, on Naive (with two string quartets by Hahn, all world premiere recordings).
20. Jean Cras, Piano Quintet (1922)
Jean Cras (1879-1932) was a 20th-century French composer and career naval officer, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral. He was born in Brest (Brittany) and in his music was inspired both by his native area as well as his sea voyages and travels to Africa. Initially self-taught, in 1899 Cras had the opportunity to study with Henri Duparc. The Piano Quintet (which also exists in a version where one violin is replaced by the flute and the piano by the harp) was composed while at sea and shows this inspiration in the short program notes Cras wrote for it. The first movement is clear and joyous, "the intoxication of breathing pure sea air." There is a vaguely jazzy quality to it. The calm second movement represents the "intense poetry" of an evening in Africa. The animated third movement is a sort of scherzo, representing "the rich musical intensity of an Arab town." It contains a clear oriental chant. The vigorous and triumphant finale represents the return voyage, "liberated by the open space from the petty things of life." Romantic and impressionistic at the same time, this is wonderful music. Cras himself regarded chamber music as his forte, a "refined musical form that for me has become the most essential."
Recording listened to: Quatuor Louvigny with Alain Jacquon, piano, on Timpani (with String Quartet by Cras).
21. Ernest Bloch, Piano Quintet No. 1 (1923)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a Swiss-born American composer. Bloch studied at the conservatory of Brussels. In 1916 he moved to the United States, working in Cleveland and San Francisco, until finally becoming a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. His First Piano Quintet, one of his greatest achievements, was written in Cleveland in 1923. The first movement seems dictated by obstinate forces bursting with energy. Material in a grim tone brought in a somber whirl of the strings is contrasted with more reflective and meditative passages. To accentuate color in the chromatic glissandi even quarter tones are used. Although there is no program, the first motif seems based on a tune that for Bloch represented "revolt against arbitrary authority." This is followed by a dreamy, mystic and fantastic Andante. It is haunted music about "magical islands in the Pacific." The finale, Allegro energico, is full of barbaric frenzy, as of a wild joy, but interspersed with a quivering, mysterious meditation. We can hear bird calls, again in quarter tones. A majestic section of symphonic power then leads to a calm epilogue with a viola melody of liberating relaxation. One of the most dramatic chamber pieces ever written, a work of exceptional mastery.
Recording listened to: The Kocian Quartet with Ivan Klansky, piano, on Praga Digitals (with Piano Quintet No. 2).
22. Franz Schmidt, Piano Quintet in G Major (1926)
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was born in Pressburg (now Bratislava) from Hungarian parents. He studied with Fuchs and Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. For many years he played the cello in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra under Gustav Mahler. In 1914 he became Professor of the piano at the Vienna Conservatory. Schmidt wrote in a late-Romantic idiom based on the Viennese classical tradition, and left four symphonies, two operas, an oratorio and a small body of fine chamber music. The Piano Quintet was written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in WWI. The quintet has an unmistakable Viennese flavor. The concentrated first movement is followed by a lovely, good-natured Ländler. The third, slow movement also contains a bubbling dance and the Finale is in Rondo-form.
Recording listened to: The Vienna Philharmonia Quintet on Decca (with String Quintet by Bruckner).
23. Julius Röntgen: Piano Quintet in A minor op. 100 (1927)
German-born, Leipzig-educated Julius Röntgen was a crucial figure in the music life of his adopted city Amsterdam from 1878 to 1932. Röntgen composed more than 650 works, many of which survive only in manuscript; there is an overwhelming number of chamber works, including 14 piano trios, 16 string trios, over 20 string quartets, and three piano quintets - these works were often written to be played by Röntgen himself with musician friends (including Pablo Casals) and his family members. The first movement, Andante, of the present piano quintet starts with a soaring melody that is checked by a characteristic, persistent seesawing figure, that creates an apprehensive atmosphere. The melting sequences give the music an unforgettable character. Although there are echoes of Brahms in Röntgen's music, this is very different from conventional Romanticism as expectations are constantly undermined in a modern fashion. The second movement is a motoric Allegro. This is followed by a Lento after which the finale in the end brings us back to the opening theme of the first movement in a questing atmosphere. A sophisticated case of thematic integration.
Recording listened to: Arc Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Canada) on RCA Red Seal (with other chamber music by Röntgen under the overall title "Right Through the Bone" an allusion to that other, more famous Röntgen).
24. Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Quintet in G Minor Op. 57 (1940)
Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the most important of 20th-century composers and much of his chamber music displays his genius at its highest level. His 1940 Piano Quintet is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of its genre. It was premiered at the Moscow Conservatory by the Beethoven Quartet with Shostakovich at the piano. According to reports of his playing, the composer played with restraint, emphasizing the motoric elements and excluding any emotional exaggeration. The work has five movements. After a Prelude led by an improvisatory flourish from the piano follows a long Adagio in the form of a four-voiced Fugue. It begins on muted strings and is played like an utterance from which all emotion has been drained. This is followed by a garish, whirlwind Scherzo, as we also know from Shostakovich' symphonies. The next movement is an unhurried Intermezzo, basically consisting of a single line of music over a gently walking bass. In the genial Allegretto finale previous ideas are recalled until the smiling music ends almost too gently on G major. This is a work of great emotional power and unusual purity, one of the best quintets ever written.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio with Mimi Zweig (violin) and Jerry Horner (viola) on Chandos (with Piano Trio No. 2).
25. Nikolai Medtner, Piano Quintet in C Major Op. Posth. (1949)
Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), a younger contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, studied at the Moscow Conservatory, among others under Taneyev. With the help of Rachmaninoff, Medtner left the Soviet Union in 1924; after a sojourn in Canada and the U.S., he finally settled down in England. Although he was an excellent pianist, he choose for a career as a composer. His works include piano sonatas, three piano concertos and chamber works. The Piano Quintet was published after the composer's death. Medtner considered it the ultimate summary of his musical life and worked on it throughout his life. It has an unusual structure, starting with a broad introduction on an epic theme. Then follows a section which reminds one of the Dies Irae. In contrast, the Maestoso section introduces a theme of hope. The second movement is characterized by a tragic but beautiful melody, rooted in music of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Finale forms a synthesis which sums up the whole work. It is written in very complicated sonata form and also demonstrates the mastery of counterpoint by Medtner. The coda brings a hymn that is full of light and joy.
Recording listened to: Dmitri Alexeev, piano, with the New Budapest Quartet on Hyperion (with Piano Concerto No. 1).
[Incorporates some information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen